TORONTO -- Taken as it was from an aerial view, the establishing shot of
the film left no doubt as to how the land was in trouble. It would be the
elders who would try to change the course of this environmental carnage.
Twenty years ago, the Haida First Nation in northwest British Columbia on
the Queen Charlotte Islands (known locally as the Haida Gwaii) staged a
blockade to prevent further logging by outside companies on its traditional
lands. What made this successful demonstration different was how the
community's elders were on the front lines.
The history of this event has been transformed into a documentary that is
making its way through Canadian film festivals and television networks.
"Athlii Gwaii: The Line at Lyell" uses raw footage obtained in 1985, when
the demonstrators established their line that wouldn't be crossed, and
mixes in interviews of Haida participants who reflect on their actions
almost two decades later.
"This whole watershed had plugged [due to fallen logs] and the chum salmon
couldn't get up the river to spawn," said Miles Richardson during a 2002
After years of observing the dramatic alteration of large swaths of lands,
the Haida had had enough. Besides losing old-growth rainforests, they saw
the ecological damage was becoming irreversible through the practice of
As a younger man, Richardson and his comrades were preparing to defend
Lyell Island, which is accessible only by boat or helicopter. While
eventually the elders believed this was their fight, too, the decision to
allow young people to stand guard was a difficult one for the community
because the threat of violence against the loggers loomed in addition to
probable arrests and jail time.
"'We wanted to make this stand and today ... today ... we ask you to
respect that'; and that was the toughest thing to let [...] these young
guys [do], but they did," Richardson said.
The producer of "Athlii Gwaii" is Marianne Jones, originally from the Queen
Charlottes and presently residing in Vancouver. She operates Urban Rez
Productions, a documentary and entertainment production house, with Jeff
Bear, the film's story editor.
The reason so much time passed between when the event took place and a
documentary could finally be made, Jones noted, is how history has treated
this peaceful dispute.
"I think it was the first successful blockade, if you could say any of them
are successful," Jones stated. "It was a marked contrast between that and
something like Oka [an armed standoff in Quebec] that occurred a few years
The Lyell protest originally drew interest from those outside the Queen
Charlotte Islands, including the media, because by the mid-1980s the
clear-cutting of forests was beginning to be seen as a destructive
practice. That's why environmentalists offered to put their support behind
However, when it was the elders who presented themselves in the rainy and
cold elements of the temporary camps, the story became more than an
environmental battle. Land-claim issues by First Nations had now come to
"It was a convergence of things that some people saw this as an environment
issue, but as they paid attention [they saw] it was much more than that,"
Jones said. "If you look inside the footage, the story was the Haida
response to what was going on on Haida Gwaii and their relationship with
Vancouver cameraman Susan Underwood shot the historical footage.
With several colleagues, she meandered her way to the Queen Charlottes.
What originally was going to be a trip of a few days wound up lasting seven
"Twenty years ago I was a novice videographer and I was looking for a
project that interested me," Underwood said. "In the fall of 1985 there was
nothing more interesting in B.C. than what was happening in Athlii Gwaii."
The climax of the film was the day the Royal Canadian Mounted Police came
to arrest the protesters, including the elders. The documentary portrays
the police as being understanding of the Haidas' plight; and in the days
prior to the arrests, with the guidance of the community, they ensured
there would be dignity for all concerned.
One of the constables was Allan Wilson, who, besides being a representative
of the federal government, was also Haida.
"I had the respect of the elders and every person in the camp," Wilson, a
police force retiree, said. "It was a long walk and I couldn't hold my
tears as we approached the line."
Likely the most poignant statement spoken was uttered by elder Ethel Jones
before her arrest: "Maybe this will open up the government's eyes to see
this old woman in jail. For what?"
While numerous protesters came to Lyell by fishing boat, many left by air
with the police. Underwood vividly recalls running with her camera to get a
shot of the helicopter taking off.
The juxtaposing image with the tree-stripped land was not planned.
"That scene evoked a very cold winter day when the elders were arrested,"
said Underwood. "It's only when you look at the footage later that you saw
the camera caught that [the clear-cut mountains] and that was because I was
focused on the helicopter."
For a documentary, "Athlii Gwaii" has few editing and post-production
techniques to enhance or spice up the camera-work. And a conscious choice
was made to allow the visuals and, later, the participants give their
version of events, rather than rely on voiceovers.
"What we really wanted to do was to make this an elders' story, and that's
what makes it unusual," said Jones.
While logging has not stopped on the Queen Charlottes, the southern half of
this archipelago is protected as the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and
Haida Heritage Site, established in 1993. Even as the Canadian government
and the Council of the Haida Nation continue to debate who owns the land,
both parties have agreed to co-manage this environmentally sensitive
"Athlii Gwaii: The Line at Lyell" was shown Sept. 30 during the sixth
annual Planet in Focus International Environmental Film & Video Festival in
Toronto. Of the 81 full-length films and vignettes, 14 contained content
from aboriginal communities worldwide. This viewing was dedicated to Jones,
who passed away earlier this year.